On 24 March transform!europe organised a debate on the ‘European House of History’ (HEH) project in order to elaborate critical approaches to the public use of history and particularly the creation of HEH decided on and funded by the European Parliament in 2009 with the explicit aim of constituting a public European identity by means of a historical narrative on Europe.
The meeting was introduced by Francis Wurtz (Honorary Member of the European Parliament) presenting several questions related to the HEH to which he has been appointed board member. Subsequently, various historians working with transform!europe foundations reacted and brainstormed together with members of the transform!europe executive board on how to establish a network of historians and what the possible tasks and objectives in the short, medium and long term could be.
The HEH is a child of Hans Pöttering, past President of the EP, who piloted the whole project from the very beginning until now as its President.The fact that he is also president of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and active member of the Reconciliation of European History Groups and Platform of European History and Conscience makes clear that he can count on much political and intellectual support to shape this new European institution whose aim is ‘to have a place of memory where the European idea could prosper’. He personally appointed a group of eight experts to draft a concept for the HEH in the form of a report which was adopted by the EP bureau without much discussion as the scientific guideline for the project. If the Executive Committee is pluralist, the Scientific Committee, on the other hand, seems quite unbalanced in geographical and cultural terms with a prevalence of conservative Eastern European experts. It is, therefore, no wonder that the report serving as basis for the HEH reads as a linear, clearly unbalanced black-and-white interpretation typical of the traditional political history inherited from the Cold War and teleological Europeism. Many of the historical interpretations of central events of the 20th century are clearly debatable if not completely wrong in the light of the current interpretations established in scholarly communities. Moreover, it is a text written back in 2007, and the perspective would be very different if its point of departure were the current deep crisis of the European model and the project of European integration, not to say of globalisation.
There are some valid points, such as the central importance for intellectual and political legitimacy of such a project aiming at an ‘official account’ of European memory, which cannot be simply a juxtaposition of national history but rather the production of a truly transnational perspective. The ambition of the whole project clearly follows the model of the Haus der Geschichte der Bundesrepublik, which is supposed to be a living space where pluralistic views and debates on the history of Europe and European integration during the long-twentieth century can take place. The HEH is very ambitious with a 50 million Euro budget, 4,000 square meters of permanent exhibitions, 800 square meters for temporary exhibitions, 300 for an information centre, a conference hall, a staff and a central location next to the EP in Brussels with a capacity to host and transmit this public account of European history and integration to millions of visitors, in particular young people. Moreover, it aims to be a place where young historians can have a place to do their work.
The first question which we discussed was whether such a project could be acceptable in principle and, if so, how it could be influenced and modified to ensure that a pluralistic and scientifically solid account of European history is effectively developed in the HEH. There is agreement, however, that an official public history on the basis of the scientific report for its permanent exhibition cannot be considered a truly critical, pluralistic and dialectic. At the same time, there can be no question of a rejection of the project, as it is so far advanced by now that nothing can stop it. But it seems clear that there is not even unanimity in the HEH board about the substantive questions. An inclusive and constructive contribution to the debate should therefore be a priority in order to avoid isolation and irrelevance. We should show that we are ready for a truly open debate, and this can help make people open to our views. Consequently, it is agreed that we should initiate a public debate on the HEH project starting with the existing scientific report, which is the only public document, a kind of ‘bible’ of the exhibition. This means to put up for scholarly discussion some of the more obviously problematic interpretations of the text without trying to write a counter-document; instead, the aim is to help open a debate on some central substantial issues discussed in the document.
Furthermore, the issue of the HEH also put on the table the fundamental question of whether there can be a left-wing approach to the public history of Europe and European integration. The consensus is that it is not possible to offer a left justification for the current state of neoliberal integration but rather a critical interpretation, which means at least two things: Public history must rely on historical scholarship and not on a manipulation of the past, as the doctrine of totalitarianism seems to do, which pervades the whole project. That such a public history must also demonstrate that there is a political, class and gender perspective with a plurality of approaches and historical subjects, including subjects of international history focusing on culture, circulations and transfers between European and non-European societies – unlike the old official, diplomatic and institutional history of great leaders and elites of large central countries like France and Germany.
In short, it seems that the HEH has the contradictory aim of creating a supranational identity based on the typical nationalist approach of using history as a political device for nation-building. Its real aim is creating a public ideological discourse which intends to dissolve differences in order to create a common memory and identity. This political strategy is not new, and through the control of the past it actually aims at controlling the present and the future of European citizens in a moment of crisis of the political system of representation. We therefore cannot accept presenting a uniform European account based on the same implicit tenets; instead, we must develop dialectic, critical and plural interpretations of European history. This discussion deserves a methodological reflection on our part as to how to come to terms with this alternative critical public history of Europe and European integration particularly as to the role of historians in political debates about collective memory, for example their role in history manuals, museums and other public history spaces. This is important particularly if we consider the need to provide critical texts and tools to history teachers in primary and secondary education, who will be confronted with such a project on a daily basis or when visiting the HEH.
A final issue is more political and relates to how transform!europe and its political partners could articulate or favour this cultural dialogue with critical historians willing to cooperate and discuss the issues in the sense intended. The political stakes are high considering that the idea of European integration is suffering an acute and sudden process of delegitimation due to the negative impact of the neoliberal turn of European integration in recent years. This turn is not being reversed but rather is deepening, with the destruction of the European social model (the welfare state) which the left contributed to building for an entire century. Consequently, a case could successfully be made for putting this question high on the agenda, namely, the question of the red thread in 20th-century history, not only through the contribution of left political actors (International Brigades, the Resistance and anti-colonialism), but also in the way that various social movements (the labour movement, feminist struggles, etc.) confronted fascism, neoliberalism and oppression. This is strategically relevant for us because there is an ongoing debate within the left over the kind of European construction that should be supported or rejected, including the European Union and the Euro. We therefore need a pluralistic and dialectical debate also on these substantial questions in order to stimulate an informed theoretical and historical debate about the present situation of democracy in Europe.
In conclusion, we have to accept entering the debate of the HEH, it should be part of a strategy to lay the foundations for an alternative public history of Europe and European integration. There is a triple-level criticism of the project on which we can base our contribution: methodological, scientific and political. It is agreed that the group will have to work on a short text which may serve to further develop our position on each of these three levels, as regards the HEH and beyond. This text should open the way to an enlarged group also reflecting the positions of those who did not attend the meeting.
There are three major objectives that the network set. In the short run, there is the consolidation and diversification itself. We need to reach a plurality of competences and critical interpretations of the contemporary history of Europe.
In the middle term we are considering staging a conference prepared in cooperation with left structures, which will address how the HEH project could develop pluralistic, dialectic and scientific approaches to the history of Europe and European integration. The aim is to remain in touch with the work and debate within the HEH and the EP in order to influence the debate.
In the long run the different members of the network – via their foundations, universities or cultural projects (or journals, sites, associations and museums) – could organise a European conference meeting with a variety of workshops to explore one of the various methodological questions (critical public history) and substantive questions (such as ‘the red thread’) and in this way enlarge and consolidate a network which can be mobilised at a European level. As for universities, it is also possible that such a project and network could serve to prepare initiatives with additional public funding at the national or European level.